What Colour Were Her Eyes? Dealing With Grief- Guest Post By Gwyneth Orford-Grove

Dealing with Grief

My Mum died on Thursday 7th September 2017 at 7.56am on ward 19.
There. I’ve said it. There is a comfort almost, in the formality of the time, date and location of major events in life. A bit like my daughter being born at 12.10pm on 16th August 1999 next to a car sales lot (that’s a separate blog post).
Her death was expected – I’d been told three times in three days by three different doctors that the end was close.
Mum’s passing was unique, as she was. There were things happening like my sister’s leaving for a long-planned holiday to Australia and New Zealand the day before Mum passed. She was high above the west coast of Australia, some 40,000 feet in the air, and I had no way of contacting her. Utterly bereft, I didn’t know what to do or where to turn.
But it’s OK, I thought, I know what I’m doing. I had spent part of my career working with young people on grief programmes. Yes, I’ll soon lick this into shape. I know all about bending to change, life throwing curve balls and how grief’s journey can be likened to seasons.
As I sit here, a mere two months after bidding Mum goodbye, I can safely say that no one and no programme prepared me for the utter numbness, devastation, guilt and bone-aching loss that I feel.

I’m in the thick of it.
I need to deal with it.
I need to function.
It is as simple as that.

Looking for Theories

I’m one for theories and models. I like the idea of things being in boxes and being explained, so don’t get me started on the shadow that I see from the corner of my eye every now and then. It wasn’t there until Mum passed (or didn’t I notice it?). And maybe it is a coincidence that I see this shadow when I am doing something in the kitchen, like making Yorkshire Puddings. Mum was York born and bred and is probably unhappy that I am using two eggs instead of one, as she always did. I can’t get mine to rise with one egg…
Seasons for Growth, an Australian programme for working through grief with young people, follows the pattern of the season when talking about grief. We all start in autumn when the grief is still ‘new’ and then we plunge headlong into winter, the place where we wallow in the chill, dankness of grief and all that it brings; the anger, the guilt, the shame, just three emotions the young people I worked with expressed when they told their stories.
Spring is the beginning of new things and now that we have accepted death and all that it brings, we spring forth into summer, the majority of our bleak grieving days behind us.
But it didn’t stop me looking for other theories of grief and loss that would somehow help. 
I came across a five-step grieving process that has, for a long time, been the accepted theory on how we grieve. It starts with denial, then talks about anger. The third stage is bargaining – or promising to make changes to appease someone’s death, possibly – followed by depression and then the stage at which we can move on, acceptance.
As I researched the five-stage grieving process, I came across this moving piece about how we have the stages wrong. We assume that because they are presented as steps that we take each step in that order. The opening line says it all “Well, I think I’ve done denial. But I don’t think I’m angry yet”.
I am not in denial and I am certainly not angry, well maybe a bit with Parkinson’s Disease, the thing that stopped Mum swallowing and speaking properly.
So, no, the five-step denial-anger-bargaining-depression-acceptance process is no good for me. What next?

The Six R’s of Mourning

Dr Rando’s theory looks at how people can actively deal with what they are feeling. The six R’s are divided into three phases, starting with avoidance. This R is about recognising loss. Have I done that? I’m not sure.
The second phase talks of reacting to separation, recollecting and relinquishing old attachments.
The third and final phase is like watching the sunrise on what has been a dark world, a chance to readjust and reinvest.
It seemed to me it was saying it’s OK to wallow but at some point, you come out of it – and that’s OK too – and that yes, you move on but before you can truly do so, you need to adjust.

Growing Around Grief

But ‘moving on’ and adjusting can be the most difficult and painful process for someone who has experienced the loss of someone. And yet, we are told, we have to do it. Holding on and not ‘relinquishing attachments’ keeps us firmly stuck in the quagmire.
Dr Lois Tonkin’s model is deceptively simple and yet, sums up the complexity of grief perfectly: imagine yourself as a circle, drawn in the centre of an empty page and that your grief completely fills the void of the circle, your mind, body and soul.
This circle, entirely shaded in grief, represents you or me, as I am now. Consumed by grief, you may stop eating, sleeping or even thinking as you normally would. It is a physical and mental state. It doesn’t have to be tears, either.
But this is what I liked about this model: the shaded area – your grief – doesn’t grow smaller over time (oh, how my heart sank!) but what happens is we adjust, and we grow new circles.
As time marches on, as it does so, relentlessly day after day, the outer circle grows bigger. You end up with a sort of fried egg image. Your grief coloured in the middle, like the yolk of an egg that stands out against the white.
Life grows around your grief. As the outer circle grows, grief no longer dominates the landscape of your life. But it hasn’t become a tiny hard-to-see dot on the page. It is the original circle that you drew but with each circle you draw around it, it has less of an impact in relation to the rest of your life.
For most people, the thought of ‘moving on’ or forgetting the person is one of the most problematic. And I can understand why. I still see Mum in my mind’s eye of the tiny shrivelled woman she had become and not the woman in the photos I keep finding. And what colour were her eyes?

Where Am I Now?

When I did grief programmes with young people, we talked a lot about grief stunting our lives and how, by carrying it around with us, we are allowing it to dominate. Tonkins’ theory is a little gentler. It suggests that this grief which for me and my sister at the moment is all-consuming, will stay with us for a time – who knows how long? -  but with life, the impact will lessen.
For now, I am happy to wallow (pass the chocolate) and I perhaps need this shaded circle of grief to stay with me, just for a little longer. I’ll know when it’s time to move on.

Gwyneth Orford-Grove has been a freelance writer for many years, a career change from the years she spent working with young people and their families. As well as writing, she sails (sort of!), kayaks and is known to take a refreshing dip in the sea and lakes of north Wales where she lives. She spends most of the time in the writing shed her husband built at the bottom of the garden.

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